If the idea of buying a crossover is an affront to your driving-enthusiast sensibilities, we’re happy to report that the 2021 Mazda CX-9 delivers plenty of the brand’s hallmark driving verve. Its handling is far sharper than any of its rivals’ and it’s powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder that will provide enough pep for most drivers. The Mazda’s cabin earns just as much love from our editors as its driving dynamics, as it offers a near-luxury atmosphere and competitive list of standard and optional features. A host of driver-assistance features are standard, too. Rivals such as the also-excellent Kia Telluride and its corporate cousin, the Hyundai Palisade, offer more passenger and cargo space, but the CX-9 remains one of our favorite SUVs to recommend to those who value athletic handling and driver engagement as much as we do.
Engine, Transmission, and Performance
In a segment where V-6 power is common, Mazda took a risk by offering a turbocharged four-cylinder engine as the CX-9’s sole powertrain in the hope of a gain in fuel-economy. It does eke out an advantage over some competitors, but it’s slight. The engine sounds gutsy and managed a class-competitive result in our acceleration testing, where it scooted our Grand Touring test vehicle from zero to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds. The 2021 CX-9 is clearly the driving enthusiast’s family hauler; surprisingly light on its feet, it often feels as if you’re driving a smaller SUV. The suspension is firm, but it’s still supple enough riding over rough stretches of road. The steering,while not as communicative as other Mazdas, still imparts vigor that’s missing from other crossovers. The firm suspension and accurate steering culminate in superior cornering control.
Fuel Economy and Real-World MPG
Apart from its solid acceleration performance, the CX-9 is, according to the EPA, more fuel efficient than many of its rivals. The front-wheel drive model earned EPA estimates of 22 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway; all-wheel drive drops both of those figures by 2 mpg. In our real-world highway fuel-economy test, the all-wheel-drive CX-9 matched its 26-mpg rating.
Interior, Comfort, and Cargo
The CX-9’s cabin wows with upscale materials and detailed styling, but compared with other SUVs in the segment, it’s short on passenger and cargo space. Open the door and the CX-9’s interior welcomes passengers with an upscale cabin that wouldn’t look out of place in an Audi. Mazda has tastefully arranged soft-touch plastic with handsome graining, brushed aluminum, and, in our Signature-trim test car, genuine rosewood. The CX-9’s smaller measurements mean real-world limitations. We managed to fit just two of our carry-on suitcases behind the Mazda’s third row, which one-third of what the Ford Explorer could muster. The CX-9’s second and third rows of seats fold easily for quick configuration changes, though, and the resultant load floor is flat, making it easy to load bulky items. With second- and third-row seats down, the CX-9 accommodated 25 of our carry-on cases.
Infotainment and Connectivity
All CX-9s come with Mazda’s user-friendly infotainment system and a 10.3-inch display. The software is easy to navigate and the graphics are crisp, plus the Mazda Connected Services suite provides remote access to vehicle status, telematics, and key operations such as remote start and remote locking. Bluetooth phone and streaming audio, HD radio, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto are all standard features. A wireless smartphone charging pad is new for the 2021 model year but isn’t offered on the base Sport model.
Safety and Driver-Assistance Features
A Top Safety Pick+ honor from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is difficult to earn, but the Mazda scored well in its crash tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also gave the CX-9 a five-star result.